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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Overcast
Arts
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Union South gets it right
Working together, architects, engineers and students have produced a timeless building
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Credit:Eric Tadsen

Living in Madison, it can be easy to take the University of Wisconsin's Memorial Union for granted. Doesn't every college town have a massive student center perched on a glorious swath of lakefront, with sailboats lazily gliding by in the summer? (I love to sip a New Glarus brew and watch for the Holstein-spotted one to go by.)

And then there are the interior spaces, ranging from sleek art deco (the Union Theater) to whimsical and folksy (the Rathskeller and Paul Bunyan Room) to elegant and classic (the Great Hall and Main Lounge).

At all hours of the day and evening, Memorial Union is a busy hub for grabbing a bite; studying; seeing a band, movie or art exhibition; or taking a Mini Course in anything from swing dancing or juggling to wine tasting or tai chi.

A palpable sense of history pervades the 1928 building, which is looked to nationally not only for the uniqueness of its spaces, but also the degree to which the students of the university are involved in programming and other types of decision-making.

Yet the Memorial Union is only part of the broader Wisconsin Union organization, which also encompasses Union South. Razed in 2009, the 1971 structure was a brutalist hulk that many found unwelcoming. A student referendum passed in 2006 provided funds for its rebuilding as well as improvements to the Memorial Union.

Now, with the opening of the new Union South, the "other Union" is fully operational again. The $94.8 million building is an immense, splashy facility that stands to rejigger the UW campus' center of gravity.

Union South is now a warm, sophisticated, grown-up facility -- but it still has a sense of fun. Just as important, it's a green building that is on track to receive gold LEED certification, a credential bestowed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Inside and out, it feels little like the Memorial Union, and that's just as it should be. Aesthetically, it needs its own identity while meshing well with the buildings around it, such as the new Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. At long last, has Union South arrived?

For architects, working a project like Union South is a dream - but also a high-pressure, high-profile one. While many students and alums may never set foot in, say, the new pharmacy or biochemistry buildings, virtually everyone will check out Union South at some point. It's a structure that must balance many divergent needs and make everyone happy.

Two firms were involved: Milwaukee-based Workshop Architects and the Columbus, Ind., office of Moody Nolan Inc. The nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute aided with sustainable design aspects.

According to Jan van den Kieboom, lead designer and principal at Workshop Architects, "It's a project of a lifetime for an architect. It's so rich and important for the fabric of the university. The University of Wisconsin is looked at as the place where the whole student union movement really grew up."

Van den Kieboom's firm specializes in student center projects and has done work (either new buildings, major renovations or master plans) at other UW campuses, as well as Northwestern, Duke, Michigan and Oklahoma State.

The common theme, the architect says, is "trying to get cross-disciplinary interactions, drawing students out of the silos of their individual areas of study and into environments that create interaction."

On this count, Union South is likely to succeed. It's hard to imagine a student who lives or takes classes in the southwest area of campus wouldn't want to spend time there. An abundance of stone, wood, natural light and inviting colors and textures make it a welcoming multi-purpose building.

As Patrick Callan, a senior from Onalaska, Wis., who is currently president of the Wisconsin Union, said of the Marquee movie theater in particular, "To just have this space now, I wish I was coming back for grad school to experience it more."

During his sophomore year, Callan was responsible for programming midnight movies at the old Union South, but found little reason to visit the building otherwise. Now, he's thrilled with its replacement.

Callan recalls, "I was walking by the construction site while it was still early in the morning on a football Saturday. The light hitting the building just glows, it shines. It's such a beautiful thing. You could be in that building all four years of your college experience and still discover something new on the day of your graduation. There are little artistic touches all over the building."

Those artistic touches are the product not only of the architectural design team, but also of Wisconsin's Percent for Art program (which, it should be noted, will be eliminated if Gov. Walker has his way). For the last 31 years, the program has mandated that two-tenths of one percent of the total construction budget for certain new state buildings or renovations is allotted for artwork.

Buildings must have a high degree of public access to fall under the program, which is administered by the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Milwaukee artist Jill Sebastian, who attended UW from 1968 to 1971 and now teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, was selected for the project. Chances are you've seen her work without knowing it; her sculptural installation Philosophers' Stones sits just off the Capitol Square, between the Wisconsin Historical Museum and Myles Teddywedgers. It's both a graceful work of public art and welcome seating for crowds at the Farmers' Market or summer festivals.

Sebastian's work for Union South is markedly different. She describes it as "five artistic interventions throughout the building." And, like the architectural side of the project, it's been a group effort, from brainstorming sessions held at the UW to the actual fabrication of the pieces. "I have been the lead artist for the concept, but there are so many hands in this," she says.

Sebastian and the students she spoke with were particularly drawn to the building's eco-conscious aspects. "The challenge was to create work that could speak to that in our time and yet be relevant 100 years from now, because the building is very, very well built."

The irony, though, is that this green building is currently surrounded by very little actual green space, hemmed in as it is by Wendt Commons, railroad tracks, roads, and other buildings. (Wendt Commons is slated for eventual demolition, but that won't happen anytime soon.)

Sebastian's work digs at those contradictions between our environmental fantasies and the complicated times we're living in. For example, two of her pieces involve fireplaces (one won't be installed right away, however). "We don't want to let go of our fantasies about hearth. A fireplace uses energy but doesn't really generate heat or light for the building." (To be fair, the building still uses 37% less energy than is required by code.)

Another piece places an Aldo Leopold quote on the wall in the famed conservationist's own script, which was rendered through digitizing. The quote, in a little indoor nook called the Roost that extends into a second-story outdoor deck, contains Leopold's lament on the disappearance of the passenger pigeon. Grad student Emily Belknap cast a lone pigeon in bronze, not yet installed. "It looks like it's just landed," says Sebastian. "She did a terrific job."

Of course, Sebastian's art won't be on the only work on display in Union South. Aside from shows in its dedicated exhibition space, Gallery 1308, other work will adorn the walls; the Wisconsin Union owns a collection of over 1,700 pieces.

Salvaged materials are another way Union South has pulled in a sense of local identity while being ecologically sound. Near the northeast entrance and within the Prairie Fire Coffeehouse & Wine Bar, you'll find terracotta cornices that once adorned the old Schlimgen Building, which stood where the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery now stands. (See sidebar for details on food venues and other key building spaces.)

What unites the building and its many discrete spaces and functions is a sense of flow and maximization of natural light. Gone are the harsh angles and hard concrete of the previous Union South. Instead, the south side of the building has a gentle curve to soak up the sun.

Stone quarried from Mosinee gives many of the exterior and interior spaces a humanizing element; it's a "real," elemental material, not some high-tech product. There are also many places where the stone - a lovely biscuit-tan color - creates flow from indoors to outside.

While Wisconsin's climate makes true indoor-outdoor living difficult much of the year, Union South does all it can to make the building responsive to the outside. A few subtle examples: the climbing wall on the lower level of the Sett, the three-story recreational area, also functions as a portal for natural light. And on the Sett's top level, high above the stage, there's a row of clerestory windows for more natural light to prevent the vast space from feeling cave-like.

The building's exterior also invites social interaction. While the South Plaza with its decks is the most obvious spot, even the side facing Campus Drive has projecting ledges that offer a convenient perch for eating lunch or studying in warm weather. Craftsman-style light fixtures and wooden soffits give the building some exterior warmth.

In the end, the building is essentially a collaboration between its architects, engineers and other professionals, and the students who had significant input into its functions and design.

"Students said they wanted it to be timeless and enduring," says van den Kieboom. "It was based in forms that responded to the site and to daylight and used locally sourced materials.... They wanted materials that wouldn't feel dated, but had an intrinsic quality to them."

After many discussions, says van den Kieboom, students and designers agreed on a term to describe what the new Union South should be: "An organic building."


Key spaces in Union South

At 187,000 square feet - not including underground parking - the new Union South is immense. It's more than 74,000 square feet larger than its much-maligned predecessor. Within the complex are a number of discrete spaces, each with its own character. Here are some highlights.

The Sun Garden
Located at the heart of the building, the Sun Garden is a soaring, sunlit space that's perfect for studying, eating or relaxing. Tables are made of eco-friendly "Paperstone" material, and wooden chairs re-interpret the classic sunburst motif of the Terrace's metal seating. When Wendt Commons is demolished which won't happen for at least five to 10 years - the Sun Garden will have an appealing view of green space and the historic Camp Randall gate.

The Sett
The Sett takes its name from the official term for a badger den. It's the Union's entertainment hub, a vast three-level space encompassing a stage for live performance, a 16-by-9-foot HD projection screen and club-like balcony seating. You'll find bowling, billiards and a climbing wall in the lower level.

The Marquee
A classy, cozy 350-seat movie theater with plush red seating will support the Union's schedule of film programming. While the screening room at 4070 Vilas Hall - home to the Cinematheque - is still nice, the Marquee blows it out of the water.

Gallery 1308
Just as Memorial Union has the Porter Butts gallery and other visual art spaces, Union South will have Gallery 1308 in an easily accessible spot near the northeast entrance. Gallery 1308's advantage is its capacity for showing new-media work like video installations. Indeed, its inaugural exhibition features a site-specific video piece by a duo of Chicago artists.

Varsity Hall
Varsity Hall is to Union South as the Great Hall is to the Memorial Union - only it's twice as big. This will be the spot for dances, banquets, weddings and other large events. There's an adjustable stage and the ability to close the room off into three smaller venues.

South Plaza
Created by the gentle, amphitheater-like arc of the building, South Plaza is the building's main exterior gathering space. On the second level, visitors can sit at classic metal Terrace furniture and soak up rays. Badger Bash will again take place at Union South; the UW Marching Band had input into the depth and gradation of steps specifically to accommodate outdoor performances there.

Wisconsin Union Hotel
The Union describes its lodgings as an "eco-friendly boutique hotel" with 60 rooms. Extended-stay rooms are like swanky one-bedroom apartments, complete with kitchenettes. South-facing rooms offer fab views of the South Plaza and Camp Randall. Décor is sleek and modern - with Badger red accents, of course.

Food fixes
In addition to offerings at the Sett, there will be five dining options and a convenience store. Food choices range from a coffee and wine bar to pizza, Asian, Babcock Hall ice cream, and traditional soup/salad/sandwich fare.

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